Last night I attended Jim Freund's wonderful NYRSF reading series to hear Terry McGarry and Veronica Schanoes present their recent work. I'm biased since the latter is my best friend, but her story, "Burning Girls," is one of the best damned things I've ever heard read out loud.
I don't think that people necessarily understand that reading is an art. For a lot of people, it seems to be a basic process of getting the words off the page and into the ears of the audience. I don't think it's common to think of it as performance - which, to be frank, is exactly what it is. Given the skiffy subject matter, you might be thinking some variation along the lines that, damnit, Jim, you're a writer, not an actor, but ... hooey. The performance is actually as if not more important than the material. This goes for academic papers as much as it does fiction, something I wish someone had told me early on: I remember presenting far-too-long papers at conferences, thinking that as long as I got all the info out, of course everyone would follow! Look, there it was, making sense on the page!
So now I cringe in sympathy whenever I'm on a panel with somebody presenting for the first or second time, who doesn't pause for breath or eye contact - bad enough! - but, worse yet, doesn't make the intonation work for them.
Example: "Burning Girls" is a "Rumplestiltskin" retelling set in the Jewish community in the early part of the 20th c., narrated in the first person by Deborah, a witch with a salty tongue and a foolish younger sister. The former shapes the problems of the latter eloquently. And in a perfect echo, when the Rumplestiltskin character is defeated, its name used against it, it cries out, "The Devil told you! The Devil told you that!" And it sounded exactly like an aggrieved child who's furious with a sibling who just made trouble for it, which both works in the context of the retelling, and which makes me think about the original story in a whole new light. Because whenever I've read the original "Rumplestiltskin," I've gotten to the part where the Queen guesses his name correctly and he cries out that the Devil must have told her that, and stomps his foot so hard he goes straight down to Hell, and I think ... dude, talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. But the air of redirected fury? The implication that the Devil is about to get an earful? And, further, that there's a whole backstory for the demon and its motivation and intentions? Genius.
Long story short: writers of all sorts, attend readings, take notes on good technique, and then practice.
On a less pro-tip note - or at least a pro-tip in a different vein - last night might have been the first time I attended an SF event since the kiddo came along, and oh, what a comedy of errors it was to get out the door. I had my clockwork routine to get ready ticking along nicely, and in the last five minutes Bear spat medicine on my skirt, I broke a nail, and my MetroCard fell down the little crack betwixt the elevator door and the floor, never to be seen again.
I will now be taking notes on the techniques of the mothers I know who manage to pull of social lives. We all have our little trade secrets, right?